Colorado State Researchers Awarded Nsf Grant to Assess the Condition and Vulnerabilities of Nation’s Infrastructure Systems

In support of national efforts to improve all aspects of homeland security, a team of Colorado State University engineers and sociologists recently received a National Science Foundation grant to develop methods to assess and report the safety of the country’s water, transportation and energy systems. The study’s results will create a procedure that proactively identifies inefficiencies and vulnerabilities of the three interdependent infrastructure systems to natural and human threats. Results will also include a new mechanism for regularly reporting this information to utility managers and the general public.

The study is based on the idea that safety and management of public infrastructure can be improved if the public has more relevant and easily understood information regarding facility condition and security. Additionally, this information can be used to help communities and individuals appropriately prepare emergency response plans in case of a terrorist attack or other disaster.

"Many threats, whether natural or human-caused, only become disasters if they hit vulnerable utilities and unprepared publics," said Neil Grigg, co-principal investigator of the study and a professor of civil engineering at Colorado State. "This research strives to provide necessary information in an easy to understand and accessible manner that will help utilities and publics make the decisions necessary to reduce vulnerabilities."

Road transportation, electricity and water systems provide the backbone for the nation’s most basic and relied-upon functions. However, even large, well-managed systems operated by government and private organizations have historically published little data about conditions and security risks. The Colorado State research team believes that performance indicators for condition and security of infrastructure systems are often available, but are often technical or used primarily in budget processes.

"The public lacks information about the condition and security of infrastructure services, but to make good community and individual decisions, people need good information," said Evan Vlachos, co-principal investigator, sociology and civil engineering professor. "Infrastructure system managers, board members and voters need the kind of data this study will provide to make appropriate assessments and decisions about reducing vulnerabilities to potential disasters."

The study’s goal is to evaluate the security status of the systems, then create a new reporting mechanism that can be used by the public. The researchers plan to use computer-based database systems to extract and simplify condition and security measures into easily understandable information. These infrastructure performance indicators will report updated information and provide data that system managers and the public can use to make appropriate decisions.

"Events of the last decade reveal how risky the world can be, but prepared utilities can continue to provide safe and reliable services in the face of earthquakes, floods and even terrorist attacks," said Grigg.

In the long run, Grigg and Vlachos feel the indicators will lead to systems that operate better and last longer.

"This study is unique in that it looks at the three systems together, because if one fails it can affect the others" said Vlachos. "For example, if a disaster causes the electric system to fail, street lights would not work, and in many places clean water could not be pumped to people’s houses."

The study will research and select the key indicators, which will be tested and refined in a case study of infrastructure systems in northern Colorado. If successful, the study’s results could be implemented throughout the United States and worldwide.

As part of the process, Colorado State will host a workshop with agency managers who will review the indicators as well as how to use them on a daily basis to achieve the most effective communications. The study team will then prepare a pilot version of the new reporting system and test the indicators at a second workshop, consisting of both members of the infrastructure systems and the general public. The second workshop will indicate whether the public judges the information to be relevant for decision making.

The NSF study is the second in a series. In the first project, supported by the American Water Works Association Research Foundation, Grigg and colleagues evaluated how water systems respond to disasters, which resulted in the 2002 report, "Surviving Disasters in Water Utilities: Learning From Experience." Following the tragedies of September 11, 2001, and the Presidential Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection’s identification of water supply security as a top concern, the study is helping water utilities to reduce their vulnerabilities to disaster. The report includes a set of best management practices to serve as a self-assessment manual for utilities and can be obtained from the Awwa Research Foundation in Denver, Colo., by calling (303) 347-6100.